American melodic hard rock band Fortress started its’ life in the early 1980´s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The band was formed by guitar slingers Vince Magyar and Alan Breider, bass player Mike Lelo and drummer Kenny Goane. Fortress won the “Battle of the Bands” contest in Milwaukee in 1983 and later that year they were joined by lead vocalist Chris Eliot (later in The Center of X). Fortress traveled and gigged the Midwest. They built a strong following and improved their skills as musicians as well as honed their songwriting on the road. In 1985, Fortress was picked for the top 4 “Best of the Midwest Chicago Choice Picks Contest” and they performed at the Chicago Metro. This contest was entered by thousands of bands and only the top 4 bands were selected to play the Chicago Metro which also was a showcase gig for major record labels and music industry press. They entered the studio to record their first demo entitled On the Loose which is included on this re-release on CD. Soon after the recording took place in 1985 Kenny Goane was replaced by Jay Arena. The demo got regular airplay on 93QFM in Milwaukee and WMSE.
Things were happening in Los Angeles in the mid-1980´s with the glam/hair metal wave and the epicenter was on the Sunset Strip. In a bid for stardom, Fortress relocated to Los Angeles in 1987 and in the process changed their name to Eliot (christened after lead vocalist Chris Eliot). Filled with dreams of taking their career forward in Orange County and Hollywood they took off. A further 9 songs were recorded as demos in a bid for that elusive record deal under the new moniker Eliot. In 1988 Eliot released a 4 song cassette called You Can Rock. They played regularly in classic clubs like The Whiskey, The Roxy, Gazarri´s, The Country Club, The Troubadour and many others. The band recorded a video for the song “Roll it Higher” that got regular play on MTV´s Headbanger´s Ball. The story of the band ended, as with many others, too soon when the music business changed drastically in the early 1990´s when the alternative rock became the new mainstream music.
Fast forward to 2015 and Las Vegas-based reissue label Retrospect Records contacted the band and secured a deal to re-release not only the Eliot demos but also the old Fortress demos together on one CD. It was released in spring of 2015 as On the Loose…You Can Rock which is a mix of the titles of the demo cassettes. What is great is that they added a lot of bonus tracks never before heard by the public taken from the tapes that had been sitting in the vaults for more than 25 years. The artwork has been reworked especially for this release and the CD contains 9 songs recorded as Fortress and 9 songs recorded as Eliot. The band reunited for a release party for the new album in October of 2015.
On the Loose… You Can Rock:
So what does this CD sound like? First I would like to point out that I, like most other readers, I missed out on the band when they were active and released the demo tapes. They were issued in a very limited quantity and only sold locally. I bought a bootleg CD containing the Eliot demo a few years back and was struck by the sheer quality of the songs and the strong voice of Chris Eliot. So when this CD was released the natural thing to do was to pick it up immediately.
You get all the classic elements of your favourite 1980´s hair metal band in this release. The CD is packed with anthemic hooks, chugging and heavy guitar riffs, thunderous drums and the clean vocals and personal voice of Chris Eliot. Their most known and somewhat “signature song” called “Amaretto” appears in two versions; the early Fortress version and the later Eliot version. There is not a lot of info in the booklet so it is hard to make out which songs are older and recorded as Fortress and which are the newer ones.
The album starts with the bands anthemic track ”Amaretto” (Fortress version) which is a heavy rocker with a strong chorus and a melody that easily stays in your head. Chris Eliot pushes his vocal chords to the limit and pulls out a great vocal performance. This opening track that tells us all about what the band is about. Definitely one of the strongest songs on the album right away. It is followed by ”You Can Rock” which is another mid-tempo rocker that starts out with a heavy riff. A simple lyric that ”you can rock me” and all the clicheés are in place. The dueling guitars from Magyar and Breider in the solo part throws the listener back to the mid-80’s. A drumbeat kicks off the third song, ”Wild Nights”, which is an 80´s hair metal track that sounds like it is taken right out of the decadent Sunset Strip on a Saturday night and the lyrics seem to describe that lifestyle as well. It has a strong, hooky sort of chorus and it´s a strong effort indeed. Eliot cries out ”I live those wild nights, rocking into my life” – priceless! Another hook-laden slow rock song is to follow in ”Take Me” and the rock n´roll influences show off in this rocker. A heavy thumping bass carries the song which is also driven forward by a bluesy guitar riff. It´s a song that reminds me of bands like Tesla or Tora Tora. The song has a more restrained vocal effort from Chris Eliot.
Now it´s time for a faster track in the title track from the first demo, ”On the Loose”, a song with a 70´s vibe – think Thin Lizzy meets Kiss. Eliot/Fortress reminds me of an 80´s band like Victory with a gritty guitar driven sound with a little bit of the blues thrown in for good measure. Up next we are treated with ”Powerdrive” which kicks off with a howl from Chris Eliot and a fast vibrato guitar solo. This is a straight ahead hard rock song. A heavy drum beat kicks off song number nine which is ”It´s Alright and soon the guitar joins in with a clever riff. It´s a heavy song with an interesting melody running through the verses and a huge gang vocal on the chorus. Involuntarily I start headbanging to the song and that makes it hard to just sit down and type. ”Thrown it All Away” starts off with a cool bass riff from Mike Lelo and soon turns into a heavy mid-tempo rocker in the same style as many of the other songs on the album. A good rock song but nothing exceptional. It is time for ”Take Another Look” which starts real slow and you think you are in for a power ballad but you get a mid-tempo rocker with a nice groove built around a cool guitar riff. It´s a song with commercial potential and a more radio-friendly approach.
We are now halfway through this extensive collection of Fortress/Eliot´s collective output. We continue with the fast driving track ”Roll it Higher” which could easily have fit in on the Cinderella debut album. I don´t mean that in a negative way – it´s a great bluesy hard rocking track. Eliot´s vocal performance on this track also reminds me a bit of Tom Kiefer but with a slightly cleaner voice. We are up next for the balladesque ”I Can´t Wait”, a song that changes tempo and shape several times. A really strong vocal melody combined with a fantastic guitar virtuoso-like performance makes this definitely one of my top picks. ”I can´t wait to feel your love again” really says it all in the lyrical department. No hidden messages there! Time for the power ballad with ”Take Time” and it starts with a Freddy Mercury like vocal from Eliot where he gets to show his diversity as a vocalist. Still, a nice detour from the mid-tempo rock songs that dominate this album.
Back on the rocking track again with a drum and bass groove that takes ”Sin City´s on Fire” of the ground. A dirty, gritty, rock n’ roll like riff soon takes command and we are back in heavy blues rock land. Bands like Southgang, Junkyard, and even early Mötley Crüe run through my mind when looking for comparisons. ”Jackhammer” is the name of song #14 on this compilation and it is another heavy rocking track. There is a cool bass solo in the middle section of the song which evolves into a dual guitar harmony type of solo. The album continues with the sleazy rocker ”Nothin’ to Lose”, a dirty and rough rock song about being on the wrong side of the law and having nothing to lose. It´s not the strongest card in the deck in my opinion. We continue on with ”Love Gone Cold” which starts off with a bluesy harmonica. It evolves into a bluesy rock song with all typical attributes and this could have been recorded by Whitesnake for one of their early 1980´s albums. Next, we get the Eliot version of ”Amaretto” which has got an updated sound and improved production making it a bit better than the older Fortress version. The last song on the ablum is ”Now and Forever” and it is listed in the booklet as a bonus track. There is, however, no clue in the artwork why this song is a ”bonus track”. It sounds like it is one of the later recordings. It is a nice power ballad, one of the stronger cuts on the album and a worthy inclusion into this compilation.
My favourite picks off this albums would be “Amaretto”, “Wild Nights”, “It´s Alright”, “I Can´t Wait” and “Now and Forever”. Fortress/Eliot is a nice acquaintance and well worth checking out if you are into 1980´s style of hard rock.
Fortress/Eliot is heavier than your average glam band and more in the vein of hard rock with 70´s influences. These guys know their craft and how to hone out a couple of great heavy rocking tracks. It´s understandable that they got lost in the shuffle with thousands of bands trying to make it in the 1980´s but they are clearly much better at it than the average Sunset Strip band. The competition was murderous at the time! The band wrote a couple of hot heavy rocking songs that really should have earned them a record deal. Don´t expect a modern production with a big and huge sound. This is clearly an archive release and you get the 1980´s production – for better and for worse! You get a young band full of ambition set out to conquer the world and a bunch of guys that really know how to handle their instruments. The booklet is only a 4-page booklet with scarce information on the songs and the band. With that in mind, I would give it a 7 out of 10 geeks grade. For the 1980´s hair metal connoisseur this release is a must! With the band playing a reunion concert in October 2015 maybe we can even expect some new material from the guys – who knows….
The release tempo from Retrospect Records has slowed down considerably and they seem more focused on arranging festivals than releasing CD’s lately. We can all hope that the flow of all these great archive releases picks up again. Give us some more Mr McCaislin!
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